Coming into the season, Jason Roper knew how special and what kind of team he was going to have prior to kicking off Week 1.
After 10 weeks, the Harrisburg High School head football coach is one of three teams alive in southern Illinois, but the lone school in Class 4A.
Not since 2000 has a Bulldog football team made it this far in the playoffs. In six years, Roper himself hadn't even won a playoff game.
Now, Harrisburg is just three weeks away from playing for a state title.
After hanging on to beat Columbia 14-7 at Taylor Field over the weekend, Harrisburg now has their eyes set on Alton-Marquette this Saturday at 2 p.m.
Still, the seventh-year head coach feels blessed to be where his team is at today, considering the Bulldogs played all season long as a 3A team and were designated 4A for the playoffs. Harrisburg is the second smallest school in 4A with 576 kids, while Macomb is the smallest school with 574 students.
"We've been pretty fortunate for the bracket to be set up the way it is and for us to get the draws that we've had," Roper said. "For us to be playing at home three weeks in a row, I think is just tremendous. In that aspect, I would say that we have probably exceeded expectations.
"At this point though, we take them one game at a time and Alton-Marquette is who we're looking at. We're not worried about who we could have been playing (if we were in 3A) or who we could be playing next. Our kids are doing a good job of staying on the task at hand. We have been blessed to have been in a 4A bracket that is comparable to schools that our size."
The Bulldogs are still relishing in their second round playoff game, the first for the school, since 2005 and extracted some revenge on the Eagles who knocked Harrisburg out of the postseason in 2003.
While Harrisburg appeared to be gassed in the second half Saturday, Roper acknowledged a lot of that had to do with the speed that Columbia played at. However, he expects much of the same Saturday against Alton-Marquette.
"We had some long drives early and when you're driving the ball like that on offense, getting three or four yards a pop that can be tiring in itself. Again, conditioning is probably something that you — this late in the year — you're not concerned about. But, it can be a factor. Marquette has some running backs that are extremely good and extremely fast that we're going to have to contain. I see it being the same kind of game plan as far as keeping their offense off the field."
Page 2 of 2 - Against Columbia, Roper felt like his offense was his defense, despite yet again, another dominating performance by the Bulldogs.
"The X-factor was our offense was able to run the ball, control the clock and keep Columbia's offense off the field. That was one of the big differences in our offense, it acted like a defense for us."
There was no denying Harrisburg's defensive dominance Saturday. Time after time, the Bulldogs made crucial, critical stops, giving up the lone touchdown off a blocked punt in the third quarter that was recovered by the Eagles at their own 15-yard line.
"One of the keys was for most of the day they were in three-down territory, instead of four-down," Roper said. "Our defensive stand right before halftime, keeping them out of the endzone and going into halftime 14-0 was huge. That might have been the game winner right there. We got the ball coming out of the break, but they really caught momentum there in the second half, so to me, that stand was really huge."
Michael Dann can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spydieshooter.